How many bird species occur here? This is a question I am often asked, and I provide some responses in this column. It turns out that there is no single answer and even those answers change.
Until 2013, the total number ever recorded here was 395 species, but that includes three extinct birds: Eskimo curlew, passenger pigeon and Carolina parakeet. In 2013, two species were added to that list, brown booby and elegant tern, so the occurrence list now totals 397 and the non-extinct list 394. (Note that this column is about birds in the Buffalo Ornithological Society territory, which includes Western New York from Batavia west and Ontario east of Grimsby.)
Can you head out to observe those 394 species? No indeed. Many of those species – like that booby and tern – have occurred here exactly once. In fact only once has there been 300 species recorded here in one year: in 2013, 301 were observed.
And the most species an individual observer has seen in a year? That record, 283 species, was set in 1962 and held until recently by Richard Rosche. Willie D’Anna set out last year to break that record. He has posted a history of his experience together with photos of many of the unusual species at www.betsypottersart.com/willie-s-photos/2013-big-year. I draw on that blog to take you through his year highlighting some of the rarer birds he saw. (In parentheses I include his cumulative total through the end of each month.)
Jan. 1: slaty-backed gull, peregrine falcon and Lapland longspur; 2: turkey and black vultures; 3: black-headed gull; 5: red-necked grebe and bohemian waxwing; 6: white-winged crossbill; 12: harlequin duck and red-headed woodpecker; 14: common raven and hoary redpoll; 19: black-legged kittiwake, dunlin, purple sandpiper, little gull and winter wren; 21: Barrow’s goldeneye and saw-whet owl; 27: Sabine’s gull (103).
Feb. 16 and 17 (after an 11-day trip to New Mexico): greater white-fronted goose and king eider (112).
March 3: evening grosbeak. (D’Anna retired from his role in the state Department of Transportation on March 6); 20: Ross’s goose; 31: great egret and tree swallow, marking the beginning of spring migration (133).
April 4: Sandhill crane; 6: Eurasian wigeon; 13: American avocet; 14: eared grebe; 15: Forster’s tern; 16: pine and black-throated green warblers, heralding the beginning of the warbler incursion; 18: Northern goshawk; 23: Western tanager; 24: ruff; 25: trumpeter swan; 29: upland sandpiper and yellow-throated warbler (190).
May 3: golden-winged warbler; 4: willet; 5: summer tanager; 6: glossy ibis; 11: piping plover and American golden-plover; 14: Wilson’s phalarope; 16: Eastern whip-poor-will; 19: American white pelican; 21: common nighthawk; 22: whimbrel; 24: snowy egret; 27: clay-colored sparrow (261).
June 2: red crossbill; 4: prothonotary warbler and grasshopper sparrow; 8: yellow-breasted chat; 19: Henslow’s sparrow (267).
July 2: sedge wren; 17: stilt sandpiper; 21: sanderling (270).
Aug. 16: Baird’s sandpiper; 27: red-necked phalarope (272).
Sept. 2: red knot; 3: olive-sided flycatcher; 9: parasitic jaeger and gray-cheeked thrush; 19: long-billed dowitcher and red phalarope; 23: buff-breasted sandpiper; 28: Nelson’s sparrow (282).
Oct. 5: Northern gannet; 7: Brown booby; 8: pomarine jaeger; 18: brant and Pacific loon; 31: Franklin’s gull (286).
Nov. 21: elegant tern; 25: lark sparrow (288).
Despite failing to add more species during December, not through lack of effort, D’Anna had set a new record for this region. (His partner, Betsy Potter, who accompanied him on most outings, recorded 283 species herself.) But even so D’Anna missed 13 species that were recorded here in 2013. While all are rare birds, several have been seen in the region most years, among them cattle egret, western sandpiper, California gull and dickcissel.
D’Anna’s individual accomplishment was, of course, gained with a great deal of technical support, none of it available to Rosche in 1962. Today all birders have Dave Suggs’ Dial-a-Bird phone call-in (at 896-1271) that summarizes the birds seen week by week. BOS members also have Mike Galas’ phone hot line that reports rarities and provides information about their location, and Alec Humann has introduced a resource for smartphones that sends messages to participants, these two resources providing instant communication. The Internet mailing list, GeneseeBirds-L, notifies readers of rare birds as well.